50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, by Guy P. Harrison (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2008, ISBN 978-1-59102-567-2) 354 pp. Paper $16.95.
Guy Harrison’s 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God is not an acerbic critique of religion, and it is not a mean-spirited attack on believers. It does not rely solely on looking through the lens of science, history, or sociology to prove that believers are on the wrong track. The book blends all of these disciplines with a big-picture view and a good dose of logic to challenge belief. Although the arguments against belief are compelling, well thought out, and not at all soft-pedaled or conciliatory, the tone is not combative. Harrison treats religious beliefs as serious and seriously flawed. He does not back down from dismantling these beliefs and casting them aside as untenable in every way, but he isn’t nasty about it.
Harrison has hit the right mix. He does not coddle or kowtow to believers, but he has a pleasant way of writing. One can almost imagine that he is smiling as he writes—not a sardonic smile but a real, life-affirming, comfortable-with-who-I-am smile. Harrison’s confidence and sense of self-worth are the basis for his nonbelief and the positive, refreshing approach to the dialogue he seeks.
In fact, 50 Reasons is the result of dialogue. Harrison has spent time talking to believers. In order to speak with someone and gain an understanding of their point of view, philosophical outlook, or belief system, one must be respectful and listen closely. The author has listened carefully to the descriptions of beliefs offered by believers and countered them with thoughtful arguments. His respect for the religious is evident in his use of the language of believers without mocking or ridiculing that language. His respect for believers’ abilities to make up their own minds is refreshing, but he entreats them to look at those beliefs with sharply honed, critical minds. And he does not back down from arguing for atheism. Harrison makes a great case for living a good life free of deities.
This book invites dialogue with believers, unlike other recent best-seller New Atheist books. If we don’t find ways to talk to one other, all the books in the world won’t help us to get along. Harrison recognizes that the dialogue must include challenges to commonly held reasons for belief, but if these beliefs are just ripped apart, the discussion becomes an exercise in futility. We will be simply preaching to the converted and gaining consensus among those already in agreement. It would be fascinating to discuss this book with believers who have read it. They won’t be able to dismiss it as easily as other recent atheist books, because of the way Harrison approaches the dialogue.
Harrison divides the book into fifty short chapters, each one addressing a specific reason for holding onto belief. The topics include hell, Pascal’s Wager, skepticism about science, and the notion of one true religion, to name a few. This structure makes for a neat, easy-to-use guide that might come in handy the next time your religious neighbors come over for coffee and start a discussion meant to convert you.
Harrison uses a primary argument against belief that may not be new to readers but is concise and easy to digest and internalize. In his first chapter, he notes that many believers are expert skeptics about every religion other than their own. The chapter “My God Is Obvious” explains that believers often shoot holes in beliefs other than the ones they hold. If there was one obvious god there really would be only one religion. Since no god is obvious, however, there are thousands of belief systems. This is the kind of direct and clear logic Harrison likes. The chapter is only five pages long, but it is effective in dismantling the idea of an obvious god. He does not over-intellectualize the issue, and by keeping it simple he makes the argument accessible.
Accessibility is important. Many books about atheism contain scientific jargon or feature complicated philosophic ideas that can be hard for “regular people” to comprehend. This is not to say that this book dumbs down important ideas or is in any way anti-intellectual. Even when Harrison is at his most strident, he is still able to maintain a conversational tone and an upbeat attitude.
Harrison is well read and cites recent, popular atheist books to pull in other voices and points of view. The book is well referenced—at the end of each chapter there is a good list of his sources and other books on the topic.
Some of the best chapters in the book deal with believers’ claims that they can talk to god, that god helps them or answers their prayers, and that belief makes them happy. I admire the way the author democratically applies his logic toward all gods. The Judeo-Christian god is as much in question as Allah, Thor, and Fidi Mikullu.
Other chapters that stand out deal with the perception, description, and defense of atheism. I am always looking for positive portrayals of nonbelievers, and Harrison provides those in the chapters “Atheism Is Just Another Religion,” “Anything Is Better Than Being an Atheist,” and “Atheism Is a Negative and Empty Philosophy.” His joyful embrace of the natural world and humanity in all its triumphs along with low points and his admission that he does not understand everything he encounters makes this author’s atheism a very happy state of being.